The Emirates saw it’s first bit of action since the visit of Chelsea way back in May as it hosted the inaugural Emirates Cup. As a (belated) birthday present to my dad, I’d managed to nab some club level tickets for his first game at the new Home of Football, and I’d say £45 for the best view in the house for 180 minutes of football served up by four very decent teams was well worth it in the end.
First things first, I’ll comment on the opening game. Truth be told, I’m
surprised that Inter and Valencia actually agreed to play each other so soon
after their well-documented fight in the Champions League last season. I was
very much looking forward to a heated affair, one which would stir the blood
of the 50,000-odd neutral Gooners who had turned up early to witness this
game. However, instead of a volatile clash we were treated to masterclass by
Valencia. They controlled the game superbly and never gave Inter a sniff.
Fair enough, Inter were nowhere near full strength but lest we forget they
are champions of Italy and were taught a footballing lesson by the fourth
best team in Spain (according to last season’s table, although I’d wager
that they’ll finish higher this year). Amongst the missing players for Inter
was our old skipper Patrick Vieira. I had been looking forward to welcoming
him back as the tannoy announced out his name, but it wasn’t to be. Much
like Thierry, Dennis and Bobby, he will forever remain an Arsenal man in the
eyes of the fans, and the same can be said of Edu, another absent former
Gooner. A big shame not being able to salute these two heroes of Arsenal’s
glorious recent past. Valencia ran out two-nil winners with goals from
left-winger Gavilan (a superb volleyed finish) and a free-kick from the
livewire David Villa, giving them a total of 5 points (3 for the win, and a
point extra for each goal scored).
And so to Arsenal. Lacking in Theo, Rosicky, Ade and Eduardo our resources
up-front and out wide were stretched to the point where we lined up with
four central midfielders across the middle of the park. Whilst Chelsea may
have managed to pull this off last season, we did not. Before a ball was
kicked it was obvious to see that a lack of width would hamper our play big
time: with no-one to stretch the game, we would become narrow to the point
of suffocation. Robin and Bendtner started in attack, with Sagna getting his
first home start and Big Phil coming back into the team to partner captain
for the day, Kolo Toure.
PSG started much the brighter, creating a few decent chances, the most
notable being Pauleta shooting wide of Almunia’s right post and Luyindula
attempting a Geoff Thomas (for you kids out there, that’s when a shot ends
up closer to corner flag than the goal). The only joy we had early on was
via the overlapping Gael Clichy who twice got to the byline, but each time
his cross failed to clear the first man. Unfortunately Sagna on the other
side of the pitch seemed reluctant to follow suit, looking tentative when
going forward. That said, he does look steady in defence, very Lauren-esque.
Halfway through the first 45, Robin picked the ball up on the left just
inside the PSG half and drove forward. Just as he was about to let fly he
was crudely brought down. The man himself stepped up to take the resultant
free-kick but the angle did not favour him as he sent it over. This was his
only decent contribution to our performance, looking ring rusty as he did
Towards the end of the half Manuel Almunia was called into action twice,
both times required to tip the ball over the bar from looping shots. Overall
I feel he gave a very solid performance and it will be interesting to see
who is on the bench against Fulham, him or Fabianski?
The opening goal came on the stroke of half-time and was very much against
the run of play as a corner was cleared to Gael, who instead of looking for
an intricate one-two decided to launch it the box. It worked a treat as
Bendtner’s miscontrolled chest-down fell to the Flamster whose half-volley
wrong-footed Landreau and went in off the post. Half-time and the famous
‘1-0 to The Arsenal’ reverberated around an increasingly vocal Ashburton
At half-time I texted a mate bemoaning the lack of width, begging Wenger to
bring on Eboue at right-midfield. And lo and behold it happened. Traore also
came on, but surprisingly not for Gael, instead for a quiet but tidy Cesc.
It then dawned on me that we had four full-backs on the pitch: Traore at
left-back, Justin (on for Bacary) at right-back, and Gael and Eboue on the
wings. And you’re trying to say that we don’t need to buy a winger? Give me
Gallas came on for Kolo, replacing him as captain too, whilst Alex Hleb got
to play in his favoured ‘no.10’ position in the hole behind the lone
Bendtner. Almost immediately we looked better with Hleb orchestrating things
well and Clichy and Traore linking up to good effect down the left. Eboue
too looked better out wide than he had against Salzburg. Just after the hour
Gael fed in Bendtner, who raced onto the ball only to see his dinked effort
drift harmlessly wide. Five minutes later, the overlapping Hoyte flashed the
ball across the six-yard box and Bendtner was unlucky not to get a touch on
it as the defender diverted it away from him. Much better.
From the subsequent corner came the second goal. Bendtner got his head to
the ball, it rebounded off a defender back into his path and he gleefully
prodded it home. It might have been scruffy and he may have needed two bites
at the cherry, but this was the perfect goal for both team and player.
Straightaway Almunia was called back into action, saving well at his
near-post from a Pauleta snapshot, the ball having sneaked through to him at
the back stick from a free-kick. Note to players: must defend set-pieces
better. PSG were in the ascendancy as Almunia again was forced to palm away
a swerving shot soon thereafter, and with 10 minutes left they deservedly
pulled a goal back. Pauleta slipped Frau in on the right-hand edge of our
box, who in turn squared the ball Luyindula who was attacking the near-post.
There was no stopping his resourceful flick which caught Almunia by surprise
from point-blank range. In all honesty, and I don’t often say this, I don’t
think there was much we could’ve done to prevent the goal, sometimes you
have to hold your hands up and admit that you were out-footballed.
The final minutes were end-to-end stuff, with the impressive Armand Traore
doing much running down the left-wing for us. We truly are blessed at
full-back. Alex Hleb for once didn’t dilly-dally, his directness gaining us
a penalty as he managed to ghost past two players before being fouled.
Bendtner stepped up with all the confidence in the world and duly fluffed
his lines, his weak spot-kick easily saved by Landreau. Only 2 minutes later
he had a chance to make amends as good build-up play resulted in Eboue
cutting the ball back to him on the edge of the box, but he lifted his shot
over the bar. The Dane doesn’t look like a player who will go into hiding
though, and he provides a real alternative to our other strikers with his
aerial prowess and clever ability on the floor. Were he to improve his
finishing then he would be knocking loudly on the door for a place in the
Full-time came without anymore scares in our box leaving us on 5 points like
Valencia, with only goal difference separating the two sides. I’ve just done
a match review and amazingly, I’ve failed to mention three of our most
impressive performers. First up, Abou Diaby was once again marvellous, this
time exhibiting his destructive nature in breaking up play as opposed to the
barnstorming runs we saw against Salzburg. For better or worse, he will
always be compared to PV4, and one area in which I think he is lacking
compared to the great man is the ability to pick a pass straightaway to
launch counter-attacks, but hopefully this will come with experience and
familiarity with his team-mates. He truly is wasted out wide, hopefully the
first-half was just a one-off due to our dearth in wide areas. His midfield
partner Denilson lasted the full 90 minutes and showed all the stamina and
strength in the world – for one so young (he is still a teenager) – he was
never knocked off the ball or rushed to lose possession. And finally, my Top
Gun for the day was Big Phil Senderos, not just for his performance but also
for the fact that he has so many question marks surrounding his future.
Today he came through with flying colours. People say this is a make or
break season for him, that Drogba has his number, etc etc. But in my eyes,
he is vital to the future of the club. We need players like him with
no-frills and a desire to get the ball away from our goal, by hook or by
crook. The compatibility of Willy and Kolo has been called into question
because they are too similar and the claims are that both work well sweeping
up behind a taller partner. Well today went some way to proving this. We
were hardly threatened in the air thanks to Phil’s dominance and he gelled
well with both Kolo and Willy. Also, are the defenders on some sort of clean
sheet bonus? If they ain’t then they should be, anything to stop leaking
goals! The boys at the back need to yearn for clean sheets like the old
guard did if we are to get anywhere this season.
Special mentions must go to Gael (Ashley who?), and Alex Hleb in between
midfield and attack. With the excellent width provided by Eboue in the
second 45 and the impressive form of Theo thus far, maybe it is time to
utilise Alex more infield in a 4-3-3 formation to make the best of his
Lastly, a word on the atmosphere. Despite swathes of empty club level seats
in the North End, the Inter/Valencia contest warmed the supporters up nicely
and in the second-half of our game the Gooner faithful really got going. At
one point there were many consecutive Mexican waves going round the stadium,
only to be rudely interrupted by Bendtner’s goal – hah!
So onto the final day and a fixture against Inter. The last time we played
them on home soil they battered us 3-0, God forbid that were to happen
again. Wouldn’t mind another 5-1 though!
P.S. if we do win the tournament, who’s gunner lift the trophy???